Having a conversation with a foreigner in a language you are still learning can be a daunting prospect, particularly if you are shy or easily embarrassed.

A UNSW team has come up with an innovative way to encourage language learners to practise their conversation skills in a “safe” environment using virtual reality.

Tom Terado, Seiya Takeda and Daphne Shen recently took out first place in the ‘Innovation Dojo’ – a UNSW Innovations’ spin-out company initiative to create a cross-cultural business between Japan and Australia.

The team’s startup, called V-KAIWA (kaiwa means “conversation” in Japanese and the “V” is for Virtual Reality), aims to help early stage language learners interact with native speakers.

“As a team we have lived, worked and taught English in Japan so we have seen the struggles of Japanese people learning English,” says Tom.

“Rather than learning from a textbook or an app, with V-KAIWA students can put on a headset and immerse themselves in virtual reality. That way, lessons are fun and interactive.

“And it reduces the risk of embarrassment, helping students build confidence before taking the next step to speak to a foreigner in English face to face,” he says.

The Innovation Dojo prize includes a trip to Japan, and Seiya is currently in Tokyo to get customer feedback and meet with institutional partners, mentors and potential early stage investors.

This includes meeting with accelerator program Creww, the innovation department of PWC’s Japan operations, the Osaka Innovation Hub and Austrade Japan.

While Seiya is in Tokyo, Tom will head to Stanford to take part in an entrepreneurs’ summit. The trip will involve research and networking for the V-KAIWA project.

“I’m hoping to meet with the Google VR people,” Tom says.

“Being a first generation Australian-born Japanese student it is great to be able to mix my interest in entrepreneurship with my own cultural ties,” he says.

Tom is currently studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Computer Science at the UNSW Business School and is also a member of the young entrepreneur society.

Fellow team member Daphne Shen completed a Bachelor of Commerce and Seiya recently graduated from UNSW with a Bachelor of Commerce and Economics.

The team is documenting the progress of their startup. You can follow their trials and tribulations via Tom's blog and the V-KAIWA Facebook page.